Getting Nassty – Routine Play

Having a routine is key for playing Magic at a high level. You should know when you play whether you cut your opponents deck or not, how you shuffle your deck, where you put all of your permanents, and even subtle things like how far your creatures go when you attack. This may not seem important, but the more comfortable you feel, the better you play. Most professional players have this built into their brains. They have played enough games that they know exactly how the physical elements and conversation are going to play out, and can put their undivided attention towards the game itself.

Once you feel comfortable with your own routine, it can be valuable to look into disrupting your opponents’. The more effort the opponent has to put into feeling comfortable, the less effort they will be putting into playing well.

Throwing Your Opponents Off

One strategy that is quite effective is being as serious as possible. Players who use this strategy always shuffle their opponent’s deck, talk to them as little as possible, and show little or no emotion. If you watch David Ochoa or Tom Raney play, their opponents often feel stressed. Web almost never talks, and he simply stares at his opponent constantly when he plays. Similarly, Raney wears sunglasses, rarely talks, and simply stares at his opponent throughout the match. By doing this, their opponents quickly get off their rhythm. While this strategy doesn’t always lead to glaring misplays, the subtle awkwardness the opponent feels can often lead to an accumulation of small mistakes.

Another strategy is to suddenly behave unexpectedly. Once, during a Shards PTQ, Tom Raney’s opponent thought Tom had made a bad play. The opponent said, “You’re pretty bad.” Instead of being offended, Tom calmly and tersely replied, “I know.” This unusual response kicked the opponent off his game. The opponent proceeded to play much worse, and almost got a game loss for missing Goblin Assault twice in a row. Tom easily took the match.

Another option to get your opponent off his game is to simply play along with his personality. This strategy works particularly well against players who are inherently casual. Gabe Walls is the best there is at this maneuver. When his opponent is relaxed, Gabe actually encourages it. He jokes around, and is constantly talking. He makes players feel at ease. While it seems like Gabe and his opponent are having fun, Gabe is not being sucked into the feelings of bonhomie: he is thoroughly focused on the win.

If you watch Gabe play, another thing he does really well is assess his opponent’s skill level. Once he does that, he will often point out things he knew the opponent would notice anyway in a friendly, if not silly, tone. For example, if it is obvious that a creature shouldn’t attack, he will make a joke that you should attack with it. If there is a card that would be terrible in the situation, Gabe will jokingly suggest that you cast it. Behind the jokes, Gabe is subtly wrapping the opponent around his finger. When you play against Gabe, you feel like everything is fine … until it comes time to fill out the match slip.

There are other ways to leverage matching an opponent’s personality against themselves. For example, when you make a casual player feel casual, they often forget that playing Magic is not an easy thing to do. A great example of this method was my Round Nine match at GP Portland. My opponent and I were both 8-0 when we sat down to play the final round of the day. When I sat down, my opponent started off by shaking my hand and congratulating me on making Day Two with tremendous enthusiasm. I immediately realized that he was satisfied with this result, and everything that happened from that point on was gravy for him. Therefore, I made it seem that I was in the same boat. I congratulated him back with the same level of enthusiasm. When we presented, I suspected that he wouldn’t bother to shuffle my deck but would only cut it. Sure enough, he cut and I cut in response. During the match, I tried to do what Gabe does better than anybody. I joked around with him and tried to make him feel that we both had it made. I did my best not to laugh when he Mind Controlled my Frost Titan without mana to pay: I gently mentioned that he couldn’t do it. I didn’t chuckle when he made the same mistake the next turn with a [card]Pacifism[/card]. I still kept calm when Cloned my Titan and attempted to tap it with the ability when he couldn’t pay. As he continued to tilt, I kept my happy and relaxed tone. It worked, and I took down Game Two in a similar fashion.

The last strategy is one that not everyone can use: reputation. When you have a reputation of being a good player, people play worse against you. If you ever watch one of LSV’s matches, his opponents often act very nervous and play much worse than they normally do. While obviously not everyone can be LSV, there is still a chance to use reputation to your advantage without winning a Pro Tour. If you Top 8 a few PTQs in a short span, or put up some other good results, word will get around. You can even have your friends mention your great successes while you’re sitting down to play. Soon people will start complaining when they are paired against you and start playing nervous against you.

At the Seattle SCG 10K, I was playing against a Zoo player. LSV walked by to check on my match since he had already finished his. My opponent opened with a fetchland for a Plateau and a Wild Nacatl. Obviously, this doesn’t work. When Luis pointed out that this didn’t work, my opponent said that he had made the mistake because he didn’t want to embarrass himself in front of LSV. Luis joked, “Too late.” Obviously, panic is not conducive to good play.

At a local 5K, I was playing against a Kithkin deck with Cascade Land Destruction (yes, this deck was real). I had recently made the finals of two PTQs in a one week span and was starting to gain reputation in the area. At the beginning of the match, my opponent commented on how he was annoyed he had to play me. Late in game three, I had the game locked up with three Wall of Denials on the board. He had no board except lands and an Honor of the Pure and no cards in hand. However, I was at six life. He ripped a Cloudgoat Ranger and slammed it down. On the next turn, he could attack with his team and force through some damage. However, once he drew and played a land (first main, since he was obviously nervous) I immediately reached for my deck, implying it was obvious that it was time for it to be my turn and I was ready to draw my card. Since he respected me as a player, he trusted that there were no more logical plays. He didn’t bother to look into the viability of attacking for himself. With the extra draw step, I managed to get myself out of the hole and took the match.

When you look at these strategies, the most important thing to consider is which one works best for you. While the goal of this is to get your opponent out of their comfort zone, if it is taking you out of your comfort zone, it won’t work. If you are a funny, talkative person, the Gabe Walls strategy is right up your alley. If you are on the quiet side, it might not hurt to go full-blown silent. Once you have earned respect, either throughout the world or in your community or even just through a manufactured reputation, you will inherently have the LSV advantage. Whatever method fits your personality is the one that will be the most effective because you will execute it the best. Pick your style and cramp theirs.

This story isn’t particularly relevant, but I feel like it’s an awesome enough story that it’s worth sharing. At a PTQ in Sacramento last weekend, I won three of the two credit card games I played in. First of all, Wrapter kindly got me a burrito from Chipotle which I gamed for and won. Later, some friends and I went to a bar and grill to grab some food and watch the Giants game. We gamed for the meal and I didn’t have to pay. Later, the bar ran a raffle. Every time there was a homer, double play, or hit by pitch in the game, they would choose a raffle ticket. The very first ticket chosen was mine, and I jumped up to find out what I won. Of course, it was a free meal. I may not have ran well at the PTQ, but I was clearly on a lucky streak. I hope it continues in Toronto (the luck and the free food!).

22 thoughts on “Getting Nassty – Routine Play”

  1. Man, i cant believe somebody let you cheat them so late in a GP, you’d think everybody by would have better rules knowledge by round 9.

  2. I hate playing against people like you, but I guess that is why I don’t play competitively. I enjoy the intellectual challenge and social aspect of the game equally, so you’ll never catch me playing an event that costs more than $5. I want to have fun, not be manipulated and cheated.

  3. @Bob: “Let you cheat them”? Are you implying that what is written in the article is incorrect or illegal? If the former, what do you know that I don’t? If the latter, please explain.

  4. Even if you disagree with the methods talked about this article, you should value the fact that you might have greater appreciation for their effectiveness. You might not employ them, but being able to recognize and adjust to them is a necessity.

  5. I’m with Ryan playing head games with your opponent makes you a giant jerk in my view, magic is about having fun and being social I don’t think this win at all cost mentality is very sporting and certainly not a good way to encourage more people to play. I’m glad more people don’t do it. I also think it detracts from your own game as well, if you want to play better spend more time focusing on your game and less time trying to throw your opponent off of their game. I traveled to GP-Sydney recently was my first non local high level event I’m glad I didn’t run into any jerks.

    Being the nerd that I am, I’ll give a chess analogy, the other competitive hobby of mine. Play like this reminds me of stories you hear about Bobby Fisher he was a good player but infamous for playing head games and things I’ve never had much respect for him as a result. Compared to someone like current world champion Viswanathan Anand who is a solid player that avoids any psychological games I think he makes a much better ambassador of the game.

  6. The moral of this story is the same as the moral of every Matt Nass article; Matt Nass is a bad person, and if you play at high level events, you will have to deal with people like him. In other words, stick to FNM.

  7. haters gonna hate.

    so this rage is about an opponent reading your tells? turning behavioural analysis into profit isn’t wrong, people. we all do it subconsciously, why not be honest about it and learn from that? it’s not like you’re going to blindly play your spells into open blue mana without even looking at your opponent once.

    this article should open your eyes up to what highly competitive magic looks like. it’s so much beyond the game itself; it’s almost like poker, really. magic is about having fun, but winning is fun and rewarding, so don’t get mad about the mind games – learn to be in control.

    i want to applaud matt nass for even touching this controversial subject and making some sense out of it.

  8. Ryan, what Matt is talking about is not cheating, ethics are questionable but it’s within the rules.

    Read Dave Sirlin’s ‘Playing to Win’ and you’ll understand.

    Matt G, I like Fischer but have bigger respect for the likes of Kasparov, the best chess player ever. Phil Ivey in poker is someone who wins through solid playing too,

  9. That’s a great hint Nass. Think I’ll go top8 some PTQs, just to make my opponents play worse.

  10. “I don’t think this win at all cost mentality is very sporting”
    The whole point of sporting is to win. The fun should be in TRYING to win. Win or lose I want to shake my friend’s hand after a game but during the game I’m doing the best to slit his or her throat, and (before and after) the game I encourage him or her to do the same.

    It’s just a game. You shouldn’t have anything to prove to yourself or to other people. Take all the ego out of it and it turns into a contest to win and the fun of exerting yourself to get there, and learning how to better do it next time.

  11. I don’t think it’s fair to attack Nass personally for this article. These are all decent tips for high-level tournament play, in which you need to scrape every bit of advantage you can. Given, he did a rather poor job of framing the article for its target audience, but it is true that these are all things that can conceivably assist you in gaining incremental advantage against opponents. Use that information as you will, and relax. If the worst thing a player ever does against you in a game of magic is try and bring you out of your comfort zone to win a match, then you’re doing pretty well.

  12. You guys play Magic the way you want, others can play the way they want. You shouldn’t be imposing your casual “came to have a little fun” rules on a GP any more than my kitchen table poker ethics apply to the WSOP.

    GPs and PTQs are REL Competitive, which makes them a pretty big step above FNMs and other store events, which are in turn a step above casual play with friends. Sick head games won’t help if you’re otherwise bad at the game, but if your opponent’s on tilt, there’s no obligation to make him feel better. You wouldn’t do it in poker, and you shouldn’t when there’s cash on the line in Magic.

    Re: the GP story about Frost Titan, it’s not cheating at all to let someone cast a spell and have it get countered. It’s only cheating if you think they’re allowed to “forget” to pay and declare it countered. Matt was pretty clear that his opponent didn’t have the mana, not that he “forgot” to pay.

  13. Dear scrubs: If you are stupid enough to make personal attacks at Matt for this article, you will never beat me in a magic game.

    Participating in these mind games is NOT optional. Guessing your opponent’s hand and lines of play is 100% neccesary to function at a GP day2 and PT level, and the subjects he touched on are directly related to this. If you don’t think its fun to Day 2 a GP, fine, but don’t insult Matt for it. You also probably shouldn’t of bothered to read his article. jerk.

  14. A well known player (mentioned in this article) who I’ll admit is really good at these types of things, also uses them to his advantage in ways that are slightly beyond what the rules allow. For example (playing Turboland last season), “not” keeping track of whether he played extra lands from Orcale/Explore or not and hoping the opponent lets him play an extra, tapping too many lands for a spell/floating Cobra mana and not announcing that there is mana floating to draw out a Mana Leak, etc. Not quite cheating, but definitely not totally honest. When I’ve played against him, he was a pretty nice, reasonable opponent except for these few things, and I think there is a big difference between judging your opponent as a bad player and subtly calling them out vs. using their apparent lower skill level to bend the rules.

  15. @spike614: Guessing opponent’s hands and lines of play is different from playing mind games. These sorts of guesses can be made via probabilistic reasoning and deduction, and do not necessarily involve manipulating your opponent’s comfort level and knowledge. Most of the techniques he describes are only going to work on the weak-minded anyway, so they are of limited utility against the quality players where you actually NEED the extra edge. Sure, I suppose you could rip a nasty fart or something to make them uncomfortable, but there is no need to be a jerk because you perceive it to be helping you (it isn’t). The bottom line is that the best path to winning is to improve deckbuilding, play, and sideboarding skills. Thanks for educating the community about some of the lame behavior that they will see employed at tournaments, it is always good to know about what to expect in advance.

  16. In _every_ competitive game/sports played by mindgames are important. So all of the stuff here is legit. Deal with it.

  17. @Matt G

    Yay chess analogies!
    I agree, Anand is a great ambassador for the game…I see him as kind of the LSV of chess.
    I think that makes Levon Aronian the Brad Nelson of chess. A genius and lovely personality to match

  18. Matt’s articles have been getting better, and if you are seriously upset over what he said in this one then YOU ARE NOT HIS TARGET AUDIENCE. Go read Casual wednesday or whatever and build a deck with Baneful Omen. This was a fine read on how you can gain an edge or not get rattled.

  19. Matt, I usually don’t really like your articles, because they seem pretty useless for the most part, but this one was awesome.

    To all hater,
    All this article is trying to do is help you win matches. Magic has enough of a luck component that you can just lose and feel like there was nothing you could have done with the cards you had. Matt is giving you an option that can minimize this luck component. To be a perfect tournament magic player you have to master these skills as much as anything else. If you want to win, you want your opponent to play as porrly as possible. The fact that original and usefull content like this gets bashed is just jaw-dropping. If you don’t like it don’t read it, because the people who enjoy this stuff want it to continue to be offered.

  20. Yo, im a casual player, and havent ever been to a fnm or store event, but i loved this article! my favorite point in the game has to be when my oponent atacks into superior defenses, and i just ask “lightning bolt?”. they blink and stuteringley say “mabie” as i lovingley stroke my untaped islands before just blocking thair chump and opening myself to the ‘bolt. they never cast it, ofcourse, untill i tap my lands – but i wasent holding counterspell anyway!

    point is, thats were a big portion of the game lives. shure, deck biulding and flavour are fun, but the game is a batle of wills, not just minds. even casual play has room for these cheeky, skill-intensive shenanigans and for my (very) casual group, their ireplacable.h.

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